Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

America's First Serial Killers

Dead or Alive

In another county, the Harpes murdered Hugh Dunlap, who had threatened to arrest them. He'd apparently made it clear that he intended to bring them to justice, no matter what it took. For his trouble, he lost his life. Around the same time, a man named Ballard fell victim to the marauders, and they stuffed his body with stones before throwing it into a river. A man and his son were both slaughtered while out planting crops, as was most of a family camping near the Whippoorwill River. There was only one survivor, who ran. Around this time, Micajah also killed his (or Wiley's) four-month-old daughter by swinging her by the ankles to smash her head against a tree.

View of the Cumberland Gap
View of the Cumberland Gap

Wearing scalps in their belts and the buckskin of Native Americans, the Harpes sought ways to bring misery all around. They made no distinction among children, women or men as their victims, or between free men and slaves. They simply raped, thieved, and killed as opportunities arose.

The next step was to offer a reward to anyone who could capture one or both of the Harpes, and this was issued by the governor of Kentucky, to the tune of $300. Given the vigilance in the area, the Harpes withdrew into the Cumberland Mountains that lay for many miles along the border between Kentucky and Tennessee. Along the way, they broke into isolated settlements to steal and commit more murders. Residents armed themselves with whatever they could find, some of them staying to protect the families and others going off in pursuit of the Harpes.

Moving along the Cumberland Gap, the Harpes and their wives traveled on Boon's trace, a path that took them into Kentucky, toward Richland Creek. There they met a peddler named Peyton, who was taking goods via horseback to various settlements. He had quite a load, and the prospect of taking these items was too rich for the Harpes, so they killed him and confiscated everything he had, including his pack horse.

From there, they journeyed toward a public house for wayfarers, operated by a man named Pharris (or Farris).

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